Starting Peppers

Peppers are temperamental to start. The joy of starting tomatoes is that they just go for it, in most cases you get all seeds you start germinating within a few days – I only put one seed in per cell. Not so with peppers! It’s like pulling teeth.

One problem is seed life, which is unpredictable. In Ashland I felt confident that pepper seed would last for a few years, but here in Lebanon (much more humid), pepper seed may have trouble after only a year or two. I started test for this, in 2016, just to see what different storage life was. I took a couple of packets (Orange Sun from Nichols) and divided them into three batches. In 2020, did a side-by-side germination test:

  • Stored in the box with other seeds, not airtight, room temperature: 0 out of 10 germinated
  • Stored in canning jar in the fridge: 3 out of 10 germinated
  • Stored in canning jar in the chest freezer: 9 out of 10 germinated

I am now storing all my peppers in the freezer! Even fresh seed, though, can take some days to germinate and will not germinate 100%.

Here is my system:

I start peppers right after the tomatoes, between March 15 and March 30. This allows time to start another round for anything that doesn’t germinate. Peppers get planted out as much as a month later than tomatoes.

All pepper seeds are started on shop rags or paper towels. (Watch out for cheap paper towels that dissolve after being damp for a week). This lets you see what has germinated and not have lots of empty cells.

Get the paper towels pretty wet to start with, later they should be damp but not dripping; put the seeds on, put in a label, and fold into quarters. Put a stack of wet paper towels into a small plastic bag and fold over but don’t seal, it should NOT be airtight. Put in a warm place. I usually put mine on top of the grow light over the tomatoes, but be careful it’s not too hot.

Every day, check the seeds for germination – a little white root tip; it also airs the paper towels and prevents too much mildew. I’ve seen germination in a couple of days, but it can take a week or 10 days… or not germinate at all. Re-dampen the paper towels as needed. I remove a seed as soon as I see any root; left to themselves, the root can grow though the paper towel and get damaged on removal.

When you see germination, very gently transfer the germinated seed to a cell tray. I usually use 50-cell trays for this. Use seed-starting mixture (I use potting soil mixed with a lot of perlite and sifted to remove the giant pieces – the key is something that drains well). Plant about 1/4″ deep. Water, label and put on a humidity cover. Set tray on a heat mat; it will need to be kept warm and moist until the seedling has emerged from the soil. I don’t put under grow lights until something has emerged from the soil, but grow lights do add some warmth. Not every seed will make it but usually only 2-3 failures out of a tray of 50.

Once the first seedling is up, it goes under a grow light. I try to leave the humidity cover on until all the seedlings have emerged from the soil, but it doesn’t always work. The grow lights are on 16 hours a day; sometimes 24 hours. While I think plants ought to have light-darkness cycles, they just seem to want more light than the grow lights provide and I haven’t seem problems with 24-hour lighting.

The seedlings will start with two seed leaves, then get their first set of true leaves. If your soil does not have any fertizlizer (seed starting mix might not), then you’ll want to very gently fertilize once there are true leaves. I use a all-purpose granular 7-5-4, a pinch per cell and mix in. Using a liquid fertilizer is easier but be very careful to make it mild – it’s quite easy to burn the little roots. My potting soil already contains nutrients so I wait until the last-germinated have their true leaves and the first-germinated are on their second true leaves.

Once all the plants have a couple of sets of true leaves, I make as much effort to get them into real sunshine as possible, while keeping them warm. Peppers can be permanently stunted by exposure to excess cold. The risk is temperatures under 50 degrees, or possibly under 55 degrees, and I’m not sure how long at this temperature it takes to do damage. You’ll know since in the garden, they stay small and stunted and somewhat twisted. So, as much sun as possible but not at the risk of chills.

Pepper plants get planted out as late as possible, for me that’s usually into June when the ground is warm and the days are long. Even then, I put a 40%-50% black shade cloth over the rows, which keeps the wind off, and helps keep them a bit warmer at night (and also helps against sunburn). This stays on for most of June until the real heat of summer starts. You can’t coddle peppers too much.

Oddly, peppers can handle the chills of late fall much better than tomatoes. We put blue tarps over the plants in late September or October, and the peppers keep ripening, long after all the tomato vines are past.

Fava Beans

Fava beans are fairly new for us; we’ve been growing them off and on, but never really processed many for cooking. After trying once to peel the fussy little beans and getting a tiny bit of bean puree, it just seemed like too much work.

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But this year we grew Broad Windsor (from Territorial seed), which produces really enormous beans, cutting down the work significantly. They say “quarter sized” and while I’m not sure if that’s quite true, the beans are much thicker than a quarter.

They were very easy to grow; just stuck seeds in the ground in fall, and weeded a couple of times. Only planted a small patch, less than 3′ by 5′.

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A hailstorm in May caused them to lie down, but didn’t bother them particularly, though it did cause the patch up to take up quite a lot more space. I had to tie them up so I could reach the back of the bed; the main path is overgrown with borage, which I’m leaving for the bees.

After the tomatoes and peppers are planted, I’m not as busy, so I’ve had time to pick favas. So far we’ve got 15 pounds of pods but there’s at least 10 pounds more left.

To prepare fava beans, you shell them like peas.

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Then blanch briefly – I blanching in boiling water for 1 minute, then put in cold water to stop the cooking. Then peel the skins from each and every bean – but after blanching, the skins just pop off.

My favas may be older and/or have thicker skins, but I’ve been piercing the skin with my thumbnail before squeezing out the bean. It’s a lot of repetitive work, but not unpleasant; it’s rather like knitting.

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The peeled beans are beautiful, bright green, and tender; they have a fresh flavor, a little pea-like but more savory than sweet. You can see in the picture the big container of discarded empty peels and the smaller container of vivid green favas, ready to cook.

By my calculations – which don’t entirely agree with the internets – 10 pounds of fava bean pods would yield about 4 pounds of shelled beans and about 2.5 founds of peeled and ready to eat beans, maybe 7 cups.

I’ve been looking around the web for fava recipes, but it doesn’t seem to be that challenging to cook with them.

There’s the Alice Water’s puree where you simmer the favas with garlic, rosemary, olive oil, salt and pepper, then puree; it is delicious. But a regular hummus is also delicious.

We added them into a sauteed with vegetables and served with pasta.

I really think you could just put them in anything and they would be pretty and tasty and nutritious. And from what I understand they freeze well. We’ve had so much that I’ve been freezing the peeled beans.

It’s so much fun to find a new vegetable that’s tasty, easy to grow, and doesn’t ripens when we have no time to care! Not that there isn’t food out there – there are snow peas, a little broccoli, and lettuce, the cabbages are heading and the beets are nearly eating size.

Lost crops of the Incas

Consider the yacon.

I’ve been growing this for some years now.  It’s easy to grow, fairly attractive plant, at the end of the season you get these large brown tubers to eat and small nobby red parts that easily keep inside overwinter to start next year’s plants.

But we don’t eat them.  They are kind of like a water-chestnut but more juicy, slightly sweet.  What to do with them?  Me, I put them in bags or buckets and they sit around until they go bad.

So again this year I’m following this system, and we got to the stage last weekend where one of the buckets of yacon that’s been sitting in the garage since October got tossed into the compost pile Then yesterday, I ran through the pouring rain to harvest some kale to put in a salad, and I notice that the rain had washed clean the blackened, gnarly skins and they actually looked pretty good.  So I went to the not-yet-composted bag of yacon that was sitting in the den, and pulled one out and scrubbed and peeled it.  Wow… still good!  And the 5 months storage had made it much sweeter.  We sliced it and added it to the salad, where the texture was tender but juicy and a little crisp and the sweetness really came though.  It discolored a little even from kitchen to eating… but not badly enough to be a problem. This is my very first time eating yacon as part of a meal… or for that matter eating it while sitting down.

Yacon is one of the lost crops of the Incas, it’s a sunflower relative that produced tubers.  In Ashland, I had tried – and failed both times – to grow Oca, a tuberous oxalis.  I have some tubers and will try again this year.  Since last year, I’ve had mashua growing, with mixed success; mashua is a tuber-forming type of nasturtium.  And I just purchased Ulluco, which is related to Malabar spinach; you can also eat the leaves so I feel happier about the possibilities, although Malabar spinach is, well, mucilaginous.

These four tubers are among the Lost Crops of the Incas, a set of edible plants domesticated in the highlands of South America and described in a book of that name.  These plants would include the potato except that the potato is definitely not lost.  Besides many tubers, this includes Quinoa, Amaranth, Chilean Guava, Pepino and others.  The problem of growing many of them is that they are from high elevation tropics – the equator runs through Ecuador, after all – so while they are adapted to coolish temperatures, usually they don’t take frost, and day length issues can cause problems.  For example, Oca just starts to form tubers when the days get shorter in fall, and may not form anything if the frosts come before they have time to do their thing.

The Ulluco came from Fry Road nursery in Albany, who produce a lot of greenhouse tropicals.  They have a number of other interesting tubers, like taro and canna root as well as coffee plants.  But given that it’s taken me more than 5 years to go from growing to eating the yacon, and my list of as-yet-untasted lost crops; it’s better not to try to push things too much….